It’s not about you

Posted on June 19, 2010

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Many years ago, a friend insulted me with one of the most valuable truths I’d ever heard. We were talking about a situation that I’ve long since forgotten, and I was frustrated about my part in it, apologizing or fretting in some way. In utter frustration, she screwed up her face and said, “Bonnie, everything’s not always about you.”

I got over being stung, and it was just the wakeup call that I needed. Rather like Aesop’s fable about the gnat on the bull’s nose, who frets about what a burden he is, while the bull is completely unaware of his existence, I hadn’t realized that I consistently brought the discussion back to me with all my fussing. Sometimes even a desire to know truth, do right, and be good, is really a mask for an insecurity that we aren’t the focus for once … the child within piping up with “look Mom!”

A friend recently told me a story of when she was much younger. She was sitting in church with her family, and two girls were sitting in the front facing the congregation, leaning over and whispering, pointing surreptitiously at her. She discreetly checked her dress to see that it was buttoned, her hair was straight. She cast her eyes sideways, making sure that her husband and children were in order. She couldn’t find anything amiss.

After it went on for some time, she was frustrated that they would continue to focus on her, when she was doing nothing wrong. She resented them, and as long as their giggling and pointing continued, her resentment grew. She was able to concentrate on nothing else in the service. Finally, she noticed a boy in front of her, completely unaware of the girls, who was wearing a stocking cap. He had been their focus, and they weren’t any more aware of my friend than he was of them.

She felt foolish then, and vain, to imagine they would have any reason to focus so long on her. It was her “everything’s not about you” moment, and I could sympathize completely. As time has passed, I’ve realized that most people are walking around deeply worried about what everyone else thinks. They are so filled with defensiveness about what another person will think, that they seldom have time to be critical, or even notice sometimes the most obvious things about us.

And even if we were walking around with a wart on our nose (and I came pretty close to that when I had a blood vessel swell on my cheek when I was pregnant with the twins) people glance at those things, and then they move on to our eyes. They tend only to make a big deal of the things that we worry about. The fastest way to invite someone else to notice something amiss with us is to worry that they will.

And perhaps, that is our problem in the first place. Just as in politics (even bad press is press), if we’re a little self-involved, even negative discussion about us, is discussion about us. A little self-examination about our motives is usually a good antidote.

Several days ago I heard a young man speak about this. He talked about a service mission he had just completed, and about how he grew. And then he talked about his confused motives, how he often did nice things for people because of what it would do for him, not for what it would do for them. He was on a mission to grow as a person, not to give himself to the service of others. That realization, paradoxically, probably added several measures to his wisdom and personal growth, precisely because he was no longer working for his own personal growth. And we’re not even discussing the confused motive of “what will they think of me?” which is another segue for another day.

We all have confused motives. We’re complex creatures. Like work in the garden, it’s never done, this becoming a person. I like the paradox that in losing ourselves, in refusing to make everything be about us, we find ourselves, and become our best selves. So next time you’re sure you know what the next person you meet is going to say, wait and see. I bet they weren’t even going to say anything.

That cat is really fat, but he’d be cute if he weren’t so worried about people thinking he was gosh-awful fat.

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